The receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a fairly private, yet often very public display of one’s Christian faith as people depart worship with a smudge of ashes forming a cross on their foreheads, sometimes prompting an explanation to others about what it all means.
“It’s one thing to confess your sins in church in front of fellow parishioners, and another thing to be public and open about it,” said Jeff Carlson, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Glenwood Springs, as he took the message of Ash Wednesday to a very public setting.
Ash Wednesday is an invitation to Christians to repent, or ask forgiveness for their sins. It also marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, which is the preparation for the Easter celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Easter falls on April 20 this year.
Carlson said that, for several years now, he has considered a public display of some sort to share the message of personal and collective repentance.
This year, he decided to do it, setting up a booth at Centennial Park in downtown Glenwood Springs Wednesday morning to explain the meaning of Ash Wednesday and to administer the ceremonial ashes to willing receivers.
Further, it was a chance for the church itself to publicly confess its own failures, Carlson said.
“The church is not always a force for good, but rather a participant in the brokenness of the world,” he said. “Repentance is not just feeling sorry for what we have done, but is a commitment to turn and walk with greater integrity.”
Beneath a sign reading, “We, the church, apologize to you,” Carlson extended the invitation to passers-by to sit and share how they believe the church itself may have caused pain or harm in their lives or in the lives of others.
“I promise not to argue or get defensive, but to listen to you with an open heart, mind and spirit, and to apologize to you on behalf of Christ’s community,” Carlson offered in a flier that was made available for people to pick up as they wandered by.
As of mid-morning, he said a “handful” of people had taken him up on the offer, including one gentleman who said the church “murdered my people,” though he didn’t go into great detail, Carlson shared.
“Too often the church does come across as self-righteous, judgmental and arrogant,” he said. “Ash Wednesday serves as a reminder to all of us that we are a community of recovering hypocrites.”
Ash Wednesday observances took place in Christian churches around the world Wednesday, including many local churches, through special worship services and times during the day for people to stop by and receive the ashes.
Traditionally, the ashes themselves come from the burnt palm branches used the previous Lenten season on Palm Sunday, which is the celebration Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem right before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Lent is also when many Christians choose to give up something during the 40-plus day lead-up to Easter.
“Lent is a time of reflection, and many Christians choose to do that by giving up something that they enjoy,” said Pastor Michael Ingersoll at First United Methodist Church in Glenwood Springs.
“If that’s candy, for instance, then every time that person has an urge for candy, we ask that they stop and pray for someone,” he said.
“Ash Wednesday is also about remembering from whence we came, and where we are going,” Ingersoll said. “It’s also a recognition of how much we have, and to give gratitude, and at the same time to acknowledge how little much of the world has.”
Father Joseph Lajoie, one of the priests at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Glenwood Springs, said Ash Wednesday Mass is typically one of the most-attended services of the whole year, even though it’s not a requirement for practicing Catholics.
For that reason, St. Stephen’s offered four mass times this year rather than the usual one, he said.
“It is a reminder to people that we do have an end to our lives on Earth, and serves as a time to repent for our distractions and attachments,” Lajoie said. “It’s a way to prepare for our own death, and to reflect on what we have done in this life, or haven’t yet done.”